Argentina: a new beginning?


 

Hear, mortals, the sacred cry:

“Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!”

Hear the sound of broken chains

See noble equality enthroned.

Those words from Argentina’s national anthem have a new ring after Sunday’s victory of Mauricio Macri, the centre-right mayor of Buenos Aires, in a run-off election for the presidency.

Macri’s victory brings, temporarily at least, an end to the Peronista epoch.

Although Juan Peron, and his adulated wife, Evita, ruled the country for little less than a decade [1946-55], his presence and at least nominal allegiance to his politics have dominated the country ever since. Even Macri, although building his campaign on change and a return to market economics, once dedicated a statue to the former leader.  Endowed with enormous natural resources, the Argentine economy has fluctuated violently with the political demands of the Peronistas.

At the turn of the 19th century Argentina was considered on its way toward the living standards of Europe and America. From 1880 to 1905, expansion resulted in a 7.5-fold growth in GDP, per capita income rising from 35% of the United States to about 80% during that period. But the Great Depression took a terrible toll and by 1941 its real per capita GDP was roughly half that of the U.S.

Peron, a great admirer of the European fascist dictatorships of the 1930s, originally installed in a military coup, made an appeal to the rapidly growing industrial work force. He trumpeted respect for workers and built a government-controlled Peronista union organization of two million workers. He attacked the country’s previous corrupt, oligarchic regimes with their nominal dedication to democracy with an appeal to the country’s underclass, the so-called “descamisados” [shirtless ones]. His beautiful, shrewd wife, Eva, became a national and international starring personality. 

Peron nationalized railroads, strategic industries and services, improved wages and working conditions, paid off the full external debt and achieved nearly full employment. But the economy went into decline in 1950 because of the unsustainable rapid growth of Evita’s elaborate social welfare benefits, and with her death and a falling out with the military, Peron’s days in power ended abruptly. But during the last seven decades Peronismo has dominated the Argentine political scene and despite its singular Argentine aspects, has become something of a model for the Hemisphere.

Now, Macri’s victory sends a signal throughout Latin America, with Argentine’s 42 millions living in the region’s third largest economy, the second in South America after Brazil. Buenos Aires has long been an important cultural center for the Spanish-speaking world, the most important after Madrid until the large immigration of Spanish Republican exiles to Mexico in the late 1030s. Macri’s victory is the most significant defeat for a leftist candidate in South America for more than a decade. And were he successful, it could return some of the Argentine glory.

But Macri faces formidable obstacles. Not least is the memory of former Pres. Carlos Menem who in the 1990s tried to turn the Peronista drift around, privatizing state utilities and laying off government workers. His free market program collapsed in 2002 living a bitter memory.

Macri has proposed a formidable agenda. He wants to immediately lift restrictions on imports and on US dollars. He needs to tame inflation surging at 30% with devaluation. [A foreign exhange scandal as erupted in the Central Bank where President AlejandroVanoli, a Peronista, insists in serving out his term to 2019.] Macri has promised the powerful farm lobby to junk the corn and wheat export taxes and a quota system, but that comes in a sagging world commodities market.

Macri, 56, will need all his popular backing as former Boca Juniors football executive. [He once wanted to play himself.] His liberalization program was charged in the campaign as part of an agenda of a  spoiled son a very rich, self-made Italian immigrant father. He is likely to face a hostile Congress with its 70-year-long Peronista heritage. But if he is successful, it could be a turning point not only for Argentina, but restoring the country’s once leading role, a welcomed stimulus for all Iberoamerica.

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